Recollections of a hike in the Cape Fynbos

 In Travel

Cape fynbos is found only at the southern-most tip of that great continent Africa! Fynbos literally translated from Afrikaans means ‘fine bush’.

It’s an area of extraordinary plant diversity and one of the few World Heritage sites chosen for the riches and diversity of the plants that grow wild. A high percentage of the plants growing in the South African Cape fynbos cannot be found growing anywhere else in the world and are referred to as endemic.

I’ve visited this plant rich area several times before but never really spent time absorbing the richness of its plant kingdom. When younger I’ve hiked with my wife up to the top of Table Mountain and climbed back down in the same day. Locals thought us mad since most tourists use the cable car at least one way! The plants on top of Table Mountain form part of the Cape fynbos biosphere.

Getting there

But this time our hike was further west and on the other side of the ‘flats’ and False Bay. This is an area that is off the tourist beaten track but an area that I can strongly recommend visiting! So travelling east from Cape Town and passing Somerset West you climb, and climb very steeply, into the Kogelberg Mountains and the Overberg region.

Where to stay

Last September we made two visits to this area, the first for an all too brief stay in the heart of the area and the second to hike. We can strongly recommend a stay in the Oudebosch Eco Lodges to totally immerse oneself in this wonderfully wild place. But if you prefer a little more comfort and a guided experience then our second base at Wildekrans Country House is for you!

But, what of the Cape fynbos plants there you might ask? Well it’s so much richer than anything we’ve experienced before and that includes both temperate and tropical rainforests!

fynbos heathers

Cape Fynbos heathers

Which are the main players

A large part of the flora comes from the huge daisy family but your focus may be drawn to the spectacular Protea!

Perhaps surprisingly, heathers form a big part of the diversity and their reduced fine leaves characterise the Cape fynbos. Most of these heather species- there are around 600- are not hardy enough for us to grow in our gardens here but some of them are cultivated as flowering house plants and conservatory plants. They have that typical bell shaped flower but this is frequently elongated, showy and highly coloured.

These and members of the Protea family dominate the woody plants and reach to waist and sometimes head height. There are in fact remarkably few trees on these impoverished and acidic soils.

spider orchid bartholina burmanniana

The rare spider orchid – Bartholina burmanniana

Orchids and bulbs

As with so many ecosystems, wildfires are a key part. We hiked through areas that had been burnt in the last few months and were still blackened. But the more interesting plant communities appear a couple of years or so after fire. Here we found a wide range of bulbs and corms emerging. This included many species of gladioli but also a lot of terrestrial orchids too! We, and our guide, were particularly excited to find a colony of spider orchids that had just emerged and would be in flower for just a few days! These orchids exhibit classic insect mimicry.

plant parasite harveya purpurea

Harveya purpurea – a pretty parasitic plant

Plant Parasites

Surprisingly, some of the showiest blooms came from plant parasites but these of course often lacked any leaves. They got all the sustenance they needed direct from their host and had no need to generate their own food!

Restios

restio grasses

Restio grasses

Another common plant group vital to Cape fynbos is the diverse Restio plant. I’ve seen them at Bristol Botanic Garden in the small collection of South African plants they have and at British flower shows invariably grown by Cornish nurseries but they never really excited me. However, seeing them in their native habitat I was won over by their diversity and how effective their muted colour and movement can be on a mountainside.

The walking is not especially demanding, which is just as well since my wife Felicity had had a new hip joint only a dozen weeks before! And with so much to stop and see along the route we were not covering great distances. On the Wildekrans guided hikes we ended every day with a civilised wine tasting session at a nearby winery. We were blessed with perfect weather that was not too hot and taxing but perhaps a hike in their summer [our winter] would be more demanding.

kogelberg fynbos and protea

Protea cynaroides – The King Protea.

As for the fabulous Protea you might ask? Well, they will always be a lasting memory and one that we will cherish! Little wonder that they are the chosen symbol of the South African Nation!

There’s further information on the plants and cultural conditions of the Cape fynbos from the Bristol Botanical Garden here.

When in South Africa during their spring – our autumn- I would recommend a visit to see the fantastic flowers of Namakwaland. I have blogged about our visit there too. You may care to read it here.

We hiked the Green Mountain Trail and had an excellent and caring guide. On one day there were three in our party and on the second we walked with just our knowledgeable guide at the pace that suited us best with so much to stop and see. We constantly walked in the spoor of the diminutive steenbok antelope but sightings of them alluded us.

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